A Modern Odyssey
We each have our own journeys that we undertake. Down the road, we all know that the path diverges not into two directions but towards several directions. There is no certainty in the path each of us chooses to take. Some take the long and winding journey. Some take the shorter and more comfortable way. Some take the high roads while some take the low roads. But comfort is a misnomer for each path comes with its own brand of challenges and obstacles. Whatever one has to conquer, one thing is for sure, these paths are going to lead us towards different destinations. And for an injured American civil war soldier, the journey is even more precarious even though the road leads him home.
In his debut novel, Cold Mountain, Charles Frazier charted this soldier’s journey home. It took place during the twilit years of the American civil war. W.P. Inman, a native of Cold Mountain, North Carolina, fought alongside the Confederates but was left badly wounded after the battle. Whilst convalescing from his injuries in a military hospital, a Eureka moment started to seize him: he realized how exhausted he was fighting for a cause he never truly believed in. His realization was further consolidated by the words of wisdom of a blind man he met at the hospital. The death of the man in the bed next to him was the final straw. One night, he slipped out of the hospital and began the long journey to his hometown.
However, it wasn’t only “home” that Inman was longing for. He began the precarious journey to reunite with the love of his life, Ada. Ada was the daughter of a minister who relocated from Charleston to a farm called Black Cove in a rural community near Cold Mountain. After the passing of her father, Ada’s upbringing in the city was of no use to a life in the farm. She was on the brink of bankruptcy when she met Ruby, a homeless young woman, who moved in and helped her. With Ruby’s resourcefulness, they both worked to improve the farm’s productivity. While patiently waiting for Inman’s return, Ada bestowed her literary knowledge to Ruby.
“One thing he discovered with a great deal of astonishment was that music held for him more than just pleasure. There was meat to it. The grouping of sounds, their forms in the air as they rang out and faded, said something comforting to him about the rule of Creation. What the music said was that there is a right way for things to be ordered so that life might not always be just tangle and drift, but have a shape, an aim. It was a powerful argument that life did not just happen.”~ Charles Frazier, Cold Mountain
Travelling back home to Cold Mountain, and eventually to Ada, however, was no easy task. Inman, who shirked his responsibilities, has taken the status of a deserter, hence, he must evade familiar routes used by soldiers lest he compromise himself; hot on the trails of military deserters is the Confederate Home Guard. Along the way, he encountered a motley crew of characters such as Home Guards, suspected witches, and a preacher named Veasey who he dissuaded from his murderous intent. With his life on the mercy of those who encounter along the way, he must learn to survive in the backdoors, a harsh environment that is akin to the tumultuous battlefield.
The winner of the 1997 US National Book Award for Fiction, Cold Mountain is a multilayered narrative that drew parallels from Frazier’s great-grand-uncle, William Pinkney “Pink” Inman. Taking personal liberties in reinterpreting his great-grand-uncle’s life, Frazier anchored the story on two familiar story-lines – romance flourishing in the midst of war and chaos. Before the civil war separated them, an awkward romance was starting to blossom between Inman and Ada. Interwoven along these familiar lines are moral and philosophical intersections that the primary characters must learn to hurdle.
Alternating between the perspectives of Inman and Ada, the narrative explored the ravaging impact of war. Frazier painted an evocative backstory to Inman’s journey. Both the physical landscape and the morale of the denizens were altered by the ongoing war. In the wake of the war, chaos, lawlessness and disarray reigned supreme. People have become morally bankrupt as the lines between what is good and what is evil has been blurred. At one point, the Home Guards who were marching a group of prisoners decided to simply shoot them because they were “too much trouble”.
The impacts of the war also rippled across the nation. Vestiges of it was felt everywhere. But while the road to Cold Mountain was filled with dangers and wickedness, Inman also encountered selflessness and kindness. These unexpected altruistic acts made him cling to the small slivers of hope; in the midst of the pandemonium, hope still springs eternal, and kindness still negates chaos. What is more interesting is that these acts of kindness came from the most unexpected sources, from societal outcasts like slaves and women. It is a profound and subtle message; ironically, those who have very little to give are often the ones who are willing to give the most.
“She wondered if literature might lose some of its interest when she reached an age or state of mind where her life was set on such a sure course that the things she read might stop seeming so powerfully like alternate directions for her being.”~ Charles Frazier, Cold Mountain
Inman’s journey is both a physical and a transformational journey. It is an odyssey that is filled with obstacles but in the midst of the confusion and turmoil, the primary characters blossomed. In a foreign territory and situation, Ada learned how to sustain herself through the help of Ruby and, in return, she helped mold Ruby. It was Inman’s growth and development, however, that was the most compelling. As he has demonstrated in the battlefield, he is more than capable of violence if the situation so requires it. But what he has witnessed in the battlefield also gave him a new and deeper insight about life. This moral crossroad sprouted in him a conviction to avoid incurring harm or pain towards his fellow unless necessary. This conviction would play a crucial role later in the narrative.
The narrative directs the reader’s attention to the natural descriptions as it was also intertwined with the stories of Inman and Ada. Nature was a constant that added a distinct and enthralling complexion to the narrative. Inman had to strive in the wilderness, battling elements of nature such as the cold, hunger and the damp while navigating a dense landscape in the middle of winter. Ada, meanwhile, wakes up to the view of the mountains but struggled to adapt to her new environment. As their stories progress, the readers see through their eyes a dynamic environment.
Nature, however, wasn’t just a backdrop. It also formed a seminal albeit subtle part in Inman and Ada’s stories; it was almost a character with its own distinct personality. Growing up in a mountainous region teeming with flora and fauna, Inman’s knowledge of plants and trees was extensive, his mind a library of a plethora of plants and trees. In his journey, he found company in a book he carried with him, John Bartram’s travel book, Diary of a Journey Through the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida. On the other hand, Ada kept a sketchbook where she drew unusual flora and fauna taught to her by Ruby. Her father, Monroe, also read books about nature written by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Thoreau.
In his debut, Frazier demonstrated his capable and lush writing. Waiving his proverbial literary wand, he managed to conjure a lush foliage that created a vivid backdrop to the story. Through the eyes of the main characters, Frazier demonstrated the descriptive nature of his writing. In the midst of a bleak setting, he painted an idyllic landscape that also exhibited his knowledge of his birthplace. It was also an effective tool in rousing the readers’ emotions. “Bleak as the scene was, though, there was growing joy in Inman’s heart. He was nearing home; he could feel it in the touch of thin air on skin, in his longing to see the lead of hearth smoke from the houses of people he had known all his life.”
“Musicians add to songs and they evolve: For as was true of human effort, there was never advancement. Everything added meant something lost, and about as often as not the thing lost was preferable to the thing gained, so that over time we’d be lucky if we just broke even. Any thought otherwise was empty pride.”~ Charles Frazier, Cold Mountain
Several cultural touchstones also found their way into the narrative. Books and literary pieces were mentioned all throughout the narrative. Literature also played a seminal role in building Ada and Ruby’s relationship. In his solitude, Inman was also comforted by a book. The impact of music, in particular blues music, was also explored through Ruby’s father, Stobrod. Stobrod was a lowlife rascal and, like Inman, a deserter. His years fighting in the war also transformed him with music as his main source of salvation.
Homer’s timeless classic, Odysseus permeated all throughout the text. The representations were palpable – the American Civil War was the modern version of the Trojan War and Inman was Odysseus who ran away to go back to Ithaca and his Penelope. Whilst it takes on the same mold as Homer’s Odysseus, Cold Mountain never reduces itself into a mundane modern retelling of the ageless literary classic. In marrying modern elements with a timeless classic, Frazier subtly explored how contemporary storytelling was molded and reshaped by ancient folklore. In the process, Frazier wrote an equally absorbing narrative.
Cold Mountain is a sweeping journey that is both physical and transformational. However, for all the literary power it holds, Cold Mountain can be a challenging read. Exploring heavy and dark themes, the story takes time to develop. It is a story that must be consumed in pieces; the breathtaking scenes drank in sips. Inman and Ada’s story are equally compelling. Whilst their romance is central to the story, the stories of salvation, growth, development, and hope that flourished in the midst of chaos and tumult elevated the story.
Characters (30%) – 26%
Plot (30%) – 24%
Writing (25%) – 20%
Overall Impact (15%) – 11%
My first encounter with Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain was way back during university days. The first thing that caught my attention was the sharp but cold blue book cover. Blue being my favorite color, the book cover left a deep impression on me and the next time I encountered a copy of the book, I didn’t hesitate in purchasing it. I included the book in my 2020 Beat the Backlist challenge as it was left to gather dust (LOL). Admittedly, Cold Mountain is a challenging read. It covers familiar yet unfamiliar themes and subjects such as love and war. There was something about the novel that was a little inaccessible. To be able to appreciate its raw beauty, it must be consumed in tiny pieces rather than in big chunks. It was still a haunting narrative with a heartbreaking and surprising ending that earned the ire of many a reader. But then again, there is no such thing as a perfect ending where chaos and tumult reign.
Author: Charles Frazier
Publisher: Grove Press
Publishing Date: 1997
Number of Pages: 449
Genre: Historical Fiction
Originally published in 1997, Charles Frazier’s debut novel, Cold Mountain, sailed on the top of The New York Times best-seller list for sixty-one weeks, won the National Book Award, and went on to sell over four million copies.
The extraordinary story of a soldier’s perilous journey back to his beloved at the end of the Civil War, Cold Mountain is at once an enthralling adventure, a stirring love story, and a luminous evocation of a vanished land, a place where savagery coexists with splendor and human beings contend with the inhuman solitude of the wilderness. Sorely wounded and fatally disillusioned in the fighting at Petersburg, a Confederate soldier named Inman decides to walk back home to the Blue Ridge mountains and to Ada, the woman he loves. His trek across the disintegrating South brings him into intimate converse with slaves and marauders, bounty hunters and witches, both helpful and malign. At the same time, the intrepid Ada is trying to revive her father’s derelict farm and learning to survive in a world where the old certainties have been swept away. As it interweaves their stories, Cold Mountain asserts itself as an authentic odyssey – powerful, majestic, moving.
About the Author
Charles Frazier was born on November 4, 1950 in Asheville, North Carolina but grew up in Andrews and Franklin, North Carolina.
In 1973, he graduated from the University of North Carolina. He earned an M.A. from Appalachian State University and a Ph.D. in English from the University of South Carolina in 1986. Before taking on a writing as a full-time career, Frazier taught English at the University of Colorado Boulder then at North Carolina State University. It was his wife who convinced him to quite from teaching and instead pursue a full-time career as a writer.
Published in 1997, Cold Mountain was his first novel. The novel was both a commercial and critical success, and was that year’s U.S. National Book Award for Fiction winner. In 2003, the novel was adapted into a film of the same name that also fared well at the Academy Awards. Nearly a decade after his sensational literary debut, Frazier published his second novel Thirteen Moons in 2006. His latest work, Varina, was published in 2018. Just like his prior works, it is a historical novel inspired by the life of Varina Davis, First Lady of the Confederate States of America.